Few things in football compare to a thumping, well-timed header. There’s something visceral about seeing a human being assault a piece of synthetic leather with their forehead. Even better if that header ends up bursting the back of the net.
It’s a skill that you’d think most professional footballers would be able to master, but that’s certainly not the case. Of Thierry Henry’s 175 Premier League goals, just two were headers – though in fairness to the Frenchman, when you’re that good with your feet you don’t have to bother using any other body parts.
Being a great header of the ball takes bravery, technique and either great height or a jump that would put Michael Jordan to shame. Here’s a selection of players who did it better than most others.
Probably the best attacking header of the ball we’ve seen in the last seven years or so.
As if there weren’t already enough weapons in Ronaldo’s arsenal, he started to develop rapidly as an aerial threat in his early 20s and by the time he turned 30 he was arguably the most feared jumper in the game.
No defender wants to be confronted with the reality of those thighs propelling him skywards and those neck muscles craning back in anticipation. Frightening.
Back in the 2002 World Cup, Miroslav Klose notched a hat-trick of headers against Saudi Arabia. Four days after that he scored another one against Ireland before, six days later, doing exactly the same versus Cameroon. That’s a total of five headed goals in the group stages of the same tournament.
To put that into perspective, Wayne Rooney and Alan Shearer scored five World Cup goals combined across their entire careers, whether by head, foot or otherwise. There’s probably not much need for any further evidence of Klose’s prowess in the air, but if you feel more proof is required, here’s a video titled “Miroslav Klose God of the Header HD”.
Across his time at Chelsea, John Terry scored 41 league goals and 67 in all competitions. That’s a pretty remarkable total for a centre back.
Most of those goals were nodded in from corners or free kicks, with Terry attacking the ball with palpable aggression. He possessed fearsome bravery in challenging for the ball, as well as a forward’s clinical accuracy, making him perhaps the most lethal set-piece asset of his generation.
On top of his goalscoring ability, he was also one of the best defensive headers around. Not many strikers got the better of him in aerial duels.
Listen, if you’re nicknamed “Header-Beast”, that’s good enough for me.
Hrubesch was a centre-forward powerhouse who rattled in goals at an alarming rate in the Bundesliga during the 1970s and 1980s. When Kevin Keegan arrived at Hamburg from Liverpool, he formed a “little-and-large” partnership with Hrubesch that was reminiscent of the Englishman’s similar relationship with John Toshack at Anfield.
The pair led Hamburg to a German title in 1979 before going on to lose the 1980 European Cup final to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. Keegan left Hamburg after that match but Hrubesch went on to captain Die Rothosen to victory in the same competition in 1983.
If you look up the definition of “flick-on” in any reputable dictionary, it’s likely that you’ll simply be met with a picture of big Niall Quinn.
The beanpole Dubliner made a career out of somehow always being right on the end of a punted long ball, without ever seeming to actually run. Up and down the land, there was the man known as “Mother Teresa” standing proud like a light-house, letting balls skim off his crew-cut into the path of a scampering strike partner.
This format reached its apex at Sunderland, where Quinny linked up with Kevin Phillips in one of the most iconic little-and-large duos of the late 1990s.
The first of our “great in the air for a smaller man” entrants, although at a reported 183cm, Davies would be pushing into the “tall” category in many societies.
More stocky than small, Davies was a shuttling, bustling presence who made his name as a hold-up man in Sam Allardyce’s Bolton side of the 2000s. He certainly put himself about, committing more fouls than any other player in the Premier League each year from 2004 to 2007. He then went on to set a record for fouls in 2009/10 before quickly breaking that record in 2010/11. Superb stuff.
Davies was an agent provocateur who often found himself underneath the high balls sent up by Bolton’s defence and showed no little expertise in winning the resultant duels, though in truth he’s in this list more for his combativity than genuine heading repute.
Shawcross and Stoke became infamous during the Tony Pulis era for their aerial approach to the game. The English defender and his team stunned many a Premier League defence after earning promotion in 2008, with Rory Delap’s long throw-ins aimed at Shawcross et al proving to be a reliable outlet for goals.
Rumour has it that Pulis encouraged his wingers to win throw-ins rather than cross the ball, such was the sense of danger created by Delap’s throws. Shawcross was a towering presence who was so often on the end of those missiles, either nodding them into the net or flicking them on at the near post for team-mates.
Aside from that, Shawcross was rock-solid in the centre of defence for the Potters, dominating the airways against the vast majority of opponents and arguably doing more than anyone to create the fearsome aura that surrounded that team at its peak.
You could easily forget what a terrifying centre-forward Carroll was when he first emerged at Newcastle in the mid-to-late 2000s.
At his best, the man from Gateshead was a sensationally athletic player. He could leap like a salmon and head the ball like a hammerhead shark – if hammerhead sharks ever headed a ball, that is. There was something very threatening about Carroll at his peak: that sinewy physical power made him seem dangerous, unpredictable.
These days Carroll is a shadow of himself, but every now and then we still get occasional glimpses of the airborne menace that made him one of the hottest properties in English football a decade ago.
Once a colossus of a central defender, now a talented manager, Campbell was often seen rising a foot above strikers and using his head to pound the ball as far as most of us could kick the thing.
If you won a header against Sol, you were doing very well indeed.
Campbell didn’t score many, but he did manage to get one in the Champions League final against Barcelona and has the same amount of international goals as Tammy Abraham.
This list, of course, would not be complete without Tim Cahill.
The Australian was an absolute marvel at getting his head on the end of crosses during his heyday with Everton and his national team. He pretty much dominates the “great in the air for a smaller man” category and would frequently out-jump much taller opponents.
He scored more than 200 goals across his club and international career, which is an exceptional return for a player who mostly operated in midfield.
Since joining Real Madrid in 2005, Don Sergio has scored 64 goals, which is almost as many red cards he’s received in the same period.
Many of those were nodded finishes from set-pieces, often at critical junctures. Ramos rarely failed to show up big for his teams and could usually be relied-upon to notch a late winner or equaliser to break the hearts of whatever set of opposing fans was hating him that particular day.
One of the most unique characters in the modern game, he is a spectacular sight in full flow.
It’s worth remembering what a powerful and dangerous centre-forward Hateley was back in the 1980s and early 1990s.
At 6 foot 3, he was a giant of a man, the type of physical threat that no defender wanted to face. He attacked the ball with furious anger and found the net many headers of the “towering” variety.
So impressive was his time at Portsmouth in 1983/84 that AC Milan came calling and brought him to the San Siro, where in 1984 he scored one of the club’s most iconic goals. Surprise surprise, it was a thumping header into the corner, the Englishman rising above Inter legend Fulvio Collovati to give the rossoneri their first win in a Milan derby for six years.
Such was the fame of the goal that Milan fans revealed a giant tifo celebrating it many years later.